La Malinche, an inactive volcano located in Puebla, Mexico, is introduced near the beginning of Canoa: A Shameful Memory like a potential tourist attraction in a travelogue, with distant shots of its seemingly picturesque surroundings inviting our awe. Shortly after, the narrator’s voice is attributed to a field worker (played by director Juan López Moctezuma), whose presence takes on a Brechtian immediacy in the film. Turning from landscape to poverty and ideology, the narrator speaks about the small population of San Miguel Canoa, a village of mostly illiterate and poverty-stricken peoples that, in September of 1968, was the site of the murder of four university employees who were passing through in an attempt to climb La Malinche. Director Felipe Cazals takes this event as the basis for his film, but instead of composing a strict reenactment, he refracts the historical record into a stunted chronology of numerous representational tacks, perhaps the least effective of which are the sequences of more straightforward reenactment itself.
Cazals contrasts the clinical procedure of news reportage with the sensational illogic of mob violence in order to intimate that each practice constitutes varying degrees of an abuse of power. The film’s opening scene crosscuts between two journalists on their phones, with one reciting the details of the Canoa massacre to the other. Neither of them seems particularly affected by the details; Cazals encloses one man with stacks of newspaper and places the other inside a barren newsroom as if to visually announce the film’s pending contrasts in perspective. Later on, as the Canoa villagers are swinging machetes and firing rifles with nightmarish relish at their victims, the commencing calmness itself seems monstrous given its inability to enunciate the emotive dimension of these events.
The narrator’s descriptions of Canoa sardonically emphasize the region’s lack of economic and educational means, so that none of his appraisals can be taken at face value. In fact, the introductory tour of depleted markets and secondary schools confuses any singular account of motive or events by depicting these places as largely free of ideological emphasis. The same cannot be said for subsequent scenes inside a church, where a priest (Enrique Lucero) persuades his congregation that members of the nearby university in Pueblo are communist revolutionaries, hell-bent on looting and corrupting their Christian community. The metrics of mob rule are relayed through a high-angle shot of a congregation whose density extends beyond the camera’s eye. The same composition occurs later on, as these same churchgoers have now become bloodthirsty, torch-toting executioners.
Cazals doesn’t articulate this seeming behavioral contradiction through words, which gives Canoa an unstable core where each represented action seems to have a volcanic potential just beneath its surface. This is true even in the lengthy stretches that establish a timeline of events on the night of the massacre. On their surface, these expository scenes function as necessary context for the murders. However, Cazals makes no effort to conceal the conflict or disguise its progression, so that viewers already know precisely the outcome before the reenactments begin. These scenes even take on a potentially perverse dimension as we watch the doomed university employees plan a trip that’s going to end in their torture and slaughter.
However, the film isn’t engaging that perversity as much as it’s confounding easy or uncomplicated access to it. There’s little denying that Canoa’s images of graphic violence inherently reward a certain morbid curiosity to witness atrocity or, more precisely, re-witness a past atrocity through a cinematic representation. Yet Cazals unpacks that interest by implicating representation itself as the central issue. As the villagers opt for violence, it’s due to their inability to decipher rhetorical manipulation. On the other hand, the university employees and reporters, whose lives aren’t constrained by poverty, view the violence through a lens of pity and anger. If Canoa has an overarching argument, it’s that little progress can be made at any level until a change is made to a system, and to its means of communication, that turns its weakest members into its most ardent defenders.
The image has a general hardness to it, which can be attributed to Felipe Cazals's use of 16mm footage and handheld cameras in order to replicate a documentary-like approach. Accordingly, this transfer remains brilliantly faithful to this vision by retaining a high level of grain and not brightening the film's relatively darkened palette. Cazals supervised this 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative, which lacks any visible print damage and shows no signs of significant alteration. Objects and people remain in focus throughout and the wide shots of La Malinche possess a remarkable amount of image detail. The audio track is also strong and full sounding, maximizing a variety of textures from within the constraints of a single channel mix.
Criterion has come up short in the supplements department on this release with just two contextual features. The first is a three-minute introduction by director Guillermo del Toro, who says the film shows "a Mexico that wasn't possible to imagine in film before," and points to a few scenes and narrative elements that are indicative of this novelty. One wishes the introduction were a bit longer or even utilized the perspective of numerous directors rather than only a terse sample of del Toro's own. The other extra, though, is excellent: a nearly one-hour conversation recorded in 2016 between director Alfonso Cuarón and Cazals that touches on all of the expected topics and more. Cuarón is a wonderful ambassador for Mexican cinema, primarily because he's able to vacillate between the perspective of a filmmaker and a film theorist with seeming ease. And Cazals is no slouch either; as Cuarón pushes him on certain choices and details within the film, Cazals counters with corrections and nuances. The cumulative effect is an actual conversation and not the question/response format that dictates most of these sorts of supplements. The film's trailer and an essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano round out the disc.
The Criterion Collection's strikingly rendered Blu-ray release of Canoa: A Shameful Memory arrives at a political moment when the film's caustic warning against a simplistic understanding of human fallibility seems as urgent as ever.